The World Cup Calendar, June 21st. The Ronaldinho Show

The eyes of the world were fixed upon the Ecopa Stadium on June 21st, 2002. It was the first “clash of the titans” fixture of the World Cup knockouts. England slogged their way through a tricky group with Argentina, Sweden and Nigeria, before dismantling Denmark. Brazil were on scintillating form in Korea and Japan, scoring 13 goals in four matches, conceding only three. Both teams boasted some world class stars, plus Danny Mills, and the stage was set for a classic encounter. It didn’t disappoint.

England had the first chance of the game, with Sol Campbell heading a David Beckham free kick towards goal. The header fell safely into the hands of Marcos in the Brazilian goal, the bounce taking the sting off the ball.

Brazil won a free kick, 25 yards from goal. It was a daunting prospect for David Seaman in the England nets, with Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos standing over the ball. Three players with three styles of striking the ball. Ronaldinho tapped the ball to Carlos, who struck it low and hard, avoiding the onrushing Paul Scholes. Seaman prepared himself for the shot, but the ball deflected off Emile Heskey, rolling out for a corner.

Brazil looked on top early on. Ronaldo cut inside the box from the left and played a neat pass to Rivaldo. Rivaldo knocked the ball back to Ronaldo who struck the ball low and hard into arms of Seaman.

Despite the astounding amount of talent in Brazil’s armoury, it was England who struck first. Heskey gathered the ball in Brazil’s half, in acres of space. Rather than running into the space, Heskey took the bizarre decision to lob the high ball up to Michael Owen. The ball landed safely with Lucio, but instead of finding a pass, or kicking it into touch, Lucio took a bad touch, stumbling, and allowing Michael Owen the opportunity to get a shot away. He took the ball in his stride and fired past Marcos to gift England the lead. Maybe this was it, maybe 1966 didn’t have to be the hallmark of England performances. If they could just hold on for 70 more minutes,
maybe they could go all the way! They didn’t.

David Beckham tried a tricky shot from outside the box. He hit a high ball up to Emile Heskey, although the Brazilian defender Roque Junior rose above the big striker to head the ball back out to the midfield. Beckham reached the ball first, hitting the ball on the bounce towards goal, only to see it fly over the bar.

English hearts were in the mouths of fans after a rasping shot by Roberto Carlos. The attacking left back was forced wide by the defensive efforts of David “Goldenballs” Beckham, but that suited Carlos quite well, as it turned out. It meant he had more of an angle to work with, and it meant that David Seaman was caught off guard by the shot. The shot curled and landed in the side netting, never really troubling Seaman, but was hit hard enough to be make the fans gasp. England were still a goal up, but they were just hanging on.

Two minutes into first half stoppage time and Brazil got an equaliser. Ronaldinho picked up the ball in his own half, courtesy of a magnificent Gilberto Silva slide tackle. He ran into the England half, twisting this way and that, skipping past players. He performed a neat stepover to send Ashley Cole the wrong way. In the half second that he gained from this move, he threaded a pass through to Rivaldo. Rivaldo turned his body upon receiving the pass to slot the ball under David Seaman with his left foot.

Brazil had been worthy of getting their goal, but it would be frustrating for England fans to see them concede so close to half time. Their anger would double, just five minutes after the half, with Brazil striking again. And we all know about Brazil’s second goal…

Step up, Ronaldinho. He became synonymous with free kicks in his career, but this was one of the first big-game free kicks from the permanently smiling attacker. He stood over the ball, some 35-40 yards from goal, wide right. The centre backs ambled up, the world wondered whether “Little Ronnie” could pick out a head of his team. What nobody expected, Seaman included, was that Ronaldinho had a shot in his mind. With the defence holding a high line, Seaman was stood well off his line, with the idea of coming out to claim the ball in his mind. As a result, he was back peddling past to recover the shot. He was helpless as the ball soared over the Arsenal ‘keeper and into the back of the net. It was a simply stunning goal from the PSG attacker. Even more impressive was that he later claimed that he entirely meant to shoot for goal.

Ronaldinho was having the game of his life, cutting through the England defence like a hot knife through butter. Until the 57th minute, that is. He went from putting in a man of the match performance, to going for an early bath. Rivaldo played a pass to Ronaldinho in the centre of the park. Ronaldinho was a step ahead of the play, having to run back to retrieve the ball. Danny Mills put in a clever tackle to disrupt his momentum. Ronaldinho put in a second tackle, but his tackle was clumsy. His foot landed on top of the ball, and he fell into it, resulting in his studs clattering into Mills’ shin. The player crumpled to the ground and the referee brandished Ronaldinho with a red card. A disappointing end to a terrific game for Ronnie. The good news for Brazil was that England had just brought on Kieron Dyer, so it was essentially 10 v 10!

England tried to turn the screw, but Brazil had five defenders on the park and were proving tricky to break down. Brazil used Cafu and Carlos as wing backs, using as an attacking formation, but by being reduced to ten men they were both resigned to defensive duties. Danny Mills bizarrely appeared to be England’s lynchpin in this second half. Not content with being the victim of Ronaldinho’s tackle, he took it upon himself to get involved further up the field. Mills outmuscled Roque Junior (yes, I was surprised too) and managed to get a shot away. Danny Mills being Danny Mills, the shot fired was high, wide and not particularly handsome.

England kept plugging away, bringing on strikers Teddy Sheringham and Darius Vassell with ten minutes to go, but to no avail. The final whistle went and England were eliminated, another tournament ending in disappointing fashion. There is no shame in losing to Brazil, especially considering that they went on to lift the cup later that year. What was a disappointment was how few genuine chances England created upon playing Brazil for over half an hour. Despite losing Ronaldinho with thirty minutes to go, the match really was the Ronaldinho show. He scored one, set up another and ran the show for sixty minutes. He was a terrific player who was a sheer joy to watch, not just on that day against England, but over his whole career. Considering England’s dismal display against Iceland last summer, Three Lions fans may look back with some fondness at “that” Ronaldinho free kick, remembering when that was the sort of effort that was needed to beat them.

Tomorrow’s game: June 22nd. Romania v England. 1998.